Marriage Story isn’t the worst movie I saw this year, but it isn’t the best. It certainly does not deserve to be leading the Golden Globe nominations in a year that gave us Uncut Gems, The Farewell, Parasite or literally any other movie not written by a white man in 2019.
I watched the movie when it came out on Netflix mostly because I saw that tweet about Scarlett Johansson doing her job and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. And the truth is, I really didn’t mind it at first. It was a bit of a slow story, one about the end of a marriage that dragged in so many places I kept thinking I wasn’t going to finish it but somehow managed to. Adam Driver is good. Laura Dern is great. That bit at the end when Adam Driver sings “Being Alive” really did move me. It wasn’t a bad movie.
And then that scene started bouncing around Twitter. You know the one I’m talking about: ScarJo and Adam (I can’t for the life of me remember their characters’ names) are yelling at each other in a lifeless room, pouring out their frustrations in a way that will be familiar to any Theatre major who had to suffer through an Intro to Acting class. It ends with Adam punching a wall and declaring that he wishes ScarJo dead every morning. It’s a lot.
When I first saw the scene while watching the movie, I liked it. It was the first time the two had really been alone together since Adam was handed divorce papers and the scene felt long overdue. For a movie whose pacing can most kindly be described as subdued, I was ready for a fight. And the drama fed that hunger. Of course Adam Driver would punch a wall! There had been so many small indignities leading to that point (the Halloween sequence with Adam and his son in the movie was so bleak, my whole body seized in pity) I would be tempted to punch a wall.
But after watching that scene a dozen more times and really thinking about the movie overall, I can’t help but notice all the small ways I was manipulated.
Charlie (I finally remembered his name!) is not a great guy. The movie opens with both Charlie and Nicole (That’s Johansson’s character) describing what they love about the other, but minutes later it becomes clear that they are far from the starry-eyed newlyweds they might have been. They’re barely speaking to each other, even as they celebrate the end of a successful run of Charlie’s Off-Broadway show, and the after-party ends with both of them leaving abruptly, after it’s implied that Charlie might be having an affair with a crew member.
Afterwards, Charlie can’t help but undermine Nicole in small ways. Insisting that they are a New York family, even as Nicole packs up her things and her son and moves to LA. Telling her he prefers her hair longer when he notices her haircut, refusing to understand what’s happening with their relationship, even after Nicole tells him plainly. What got me though, is that on first watch, I didn’t notice these things about Charlie.
When Charlie punches the wall and screams “And you’re fucking winning!” to Nicole during their fight, I agreed with him. She manages to establish residency with their son in LA? What a bitch! She excludes him from her pre-planned Halloween, forcing Charlie to scramble for something for his son long after Trick or Treating is over? How unfair! Even though we know from the very beginning that Charlie is ultimately in the wrong, Baumbach cleverly crafts the narrative so that the audience is implicitly on Charlie’s side.
So we come to the big fight, the powder keg finally exploding and…. Charlie is the only one that explodes. That empty room becomes a canvas for all of Charlie’s anger, his bitterness, his vitriol and Nicole, who stands beside him, gets nothing.
Twitter user @SonofBaldwin described this scene as the diet Crystal Light version of Rose’s iconic “Standing in the Same Spot As You” monologue from Fences (played by a sublime Viola Davis in the movie). It is undoubtedly Rose’s moment, a canvas for her own anger, bitterness and vitriol, built up through years of indignities. But while Troy doesn’t have much of a voice in this scene, one can’t claim that this is unequal. The entire play to this point has been Troy’s canvas, his many monologues shading his character, his motivations, his own anger and bitterness. When Rose’s monologue finally comes, the explosion is earned, the moment cathartic. This moment is what brings an equilibrium.
That equilibrium never comes in Marriage Story. In the fight itself, Nicole is relegated to a bit player, only answering to Charlie’s accusations and making no new ones of her own. We’ve known since the start of the movie that Charlie cheated, but it’s all that Nicole can seem to bring up now. Charlie posits that there was so much he could have done if he wasn’t with Nicole. But what could Nicole have done if she wasn’t with Charlie? What did she lose when she was with him? Why wasn’t that thrown in his face?
The closest Nicole comes to voicing her side of things is in her lawyers office near the beginning of the movie, an almost six minute monologue that also passed around Twitter and got me to watch Marriage Story in the first place. She mentions Charlie’s selfishness, how he never listened to her, how he didn’t see her. She was only “feeding his aliveness”. But even in this moment, while Charlie had his rage, she is weepy, nostalgic. Half of the monologue is devoted to how much she loved Charlie before things went to shit. The revelation that he cheated doesn’t even come during her monologue, but after it, in a toss away line played for laughs right before the scene cuts to something else.
The most jarring thing of all though is the final moments of their fight. Charlie, in tears, exclaims that he wishes Nicole was dead, either by accident or illness, and permanently out of his life. It was a statement so jarring, I exclaimed vocally the first time I watched it. It is such a visceral and awful thing to say, the kind of statement that once it’s in the air, is irreversible in its damage and scope. But Nicole barely even blinks. In fact, when Charlie breaks down soon after, she moves to comfort him. I’ve seen several people online point to this moment as an example of how love in a marriage can be all encompassing, even as it’s ending. But that isn’t love. It’s violence. And having Nicole come to his side in that moment screams louder than anything else in this film, that this is a movie written by a white man.
It is often thought that whiteness is the default in which all other art must either rebel against or conform to. But there is nothing universal about this movie or its story. Marriage Story is hyper-specific to the race and class it was written towards. The biggest contention in Charlie and Nicole’s divorce is whether or not their son will have New York residency or LA residency, which will determine which parent will get to have custody on their home turf. But the stakes are almost non-existent because unlike most Americans, both parents are in a position where they can easily get on a plane and fly across the country to see their son. Charlie even sets up temporary residence (which includes getting and furnishing an apartment in LA, while still maintaining an apartment in New York, two of the most notoriously expensive cities in the country) to bolster his custody claim. It is mentioned time and again that Charlie could easily find work in LA despite his reluctance to do so and the movie ends with him actually taking a cushy, year long residency to be closer to his son.
It is the kind of story that could only work for a white and privileged couple and their fight is the kind of fight that only a white and privileged couple could have. The fact that Charlie could “come from nothing” and become a buzzed about director in New York getting magazine covers in his twenties is staggering. The idea that the biggest thing he missed during that time was the ability to fuck whomever he wanted because he had a wife is so acutely white and male that it borders on hilarity. When he punches a hole in his wall, I could almost feel my mother backhanding me into the new decade. The casual disrespect for personal property that seems to go hand in hand with white anger doesn’t even register in the Black diaspora. To break something is momentous. To wish death on someone confronts our relationship with the spiritual, the mystic. Our anger is a different animal completely.
It feels strange that this is the movie that is garnering acclaim, until I remember that Hollywood loves nothing more than a mirror that catches its most flattering angle. Marriage Story is what LaLa Land was years ago: easily digestible, already nostalgic, and not as good as all of white Hollywood thinks it is.
But that’s just par for the course at this point.